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Downed spy balloon leads to rise in diplomatic tensions between U.S. and China

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A jet flies by a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S. February 4, 2023.
Randall Hill | Reuters

The U.S. downed the Chinese surveillance balloon off the Carolina coast on Saturday and will attempt to recover its debris, according to a U.S. official.

The action came a couple of hours after President Joe Biden responded to a reporter who asked whether the U.S. would shoot down the balloon. “We’re gonna take care of it,” Biden said, in his first public remarks about the balloon.

In remarks to reporters after the balloon was shot down, Biden said he made the order to the Pentagon after he was briefed on Wednesday.

“They decided — without doing damage to anyone on the ground — they decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water,” he said. “They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it. And we’ll have more to report on this a little later.”

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The balloon was shot down at 2:39 p.m. by an F-22 raptor with a single missile, according to a senior defense official. The balloon was between 60,000 to 65,000 feet in the air when it was downed.

The debris field from the balloon is about seven miles spread out and ships as well as navy divers are expected to help recover the pieces, a senior U.S. military official told NBC News.

The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S. February 4, 2023.
Randall Hill | Reuters

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the balloon was shot down over the coast of South Carolina in a statement.

“This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully brought down the high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in U.S. airspace,” Austin said.

“The balloon, which was being used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above U.S. territorial waters,” he said.

Biden on Wednesday “gave his authorization to take down the balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path,” he added. “After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload.”

The balloon entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28 north of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska before entering Canadian airspace on Monday, the senior defense official said. It re-entered U.S. airspace on Tuesday in northern Idaho.

Hours before it was shot down, residents in North Carolina and South Carolina reported seeing the spy balloon and the Federal Aviation Administration paused departures and arrivals at three local airports to support the Defense Department in “a national security effort,” according to an FAA statement.

Videos showing fighter jets targeting the spy balloon and taking it down are circulating on social media. The jets are seen approaching the balloon before it starts to fall from the sky.

Some lawmakers took to social media to applaud Biden’s decision to take down the spy balloon.

“I strongly condemn President Xi’s brazen incursion into American airspace, and I commend President Biden’s leadership in taking down the Chinese balloon over water to ensure safety for all Americans,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted following the news. “Now we can collect the equipment and analyze the technology used by the CCP.”

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